Both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have reason to think they stand to benefit from the looming debut of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright into Middle East peacemaking. Israelis point to her tough-minded approach towards Iraq and other rogue states while assigned to the UN, and Albright's recent, dramatic encounter with her Jewish past. She also appears to have embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for skipping directly to a six-month period for final status talks.
Palestinians perceive Albright's broader understanding of US national interests to favour them, and also welcome the new American role as a "witness" of Oslo compliance, in lieu of the high (and completely justifiable) standards imposed by Netanyahu.
The Israeli public welcomed the strict standard of Oslo compliance-- "reciprocity"--which Netanyahu applied to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, as opposed to the rather lax attitude shown by his predecessors Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. But with Albright's appearance, that same public has reason to be concerned that the State Department will override Israel's own assessment as to whether peace has come to its streets, with subsequent, and predetermined, US demands for more concessions of land (etc.) in one big push to finally impose a settlement that serves primarily American interests in the region.
Albright conditioned her first junket to the region on the PA restoring full security cooperation with Israel. Even as the CIA began its oversight, Israeli commentator Chemi Shalev reasoned: "As soon as Albright announces her visit, she will have given a seal of approval to Arafat" (Ma'ariv, Aug 12). Within days, Albright's office announced she would be coming in September, thereby mooting the entire crucial question of the PA's commitment to fight Islamic terrorism. What is most amazing is that Arafat can manage such a vote of American confidence while embracing Hamas leader Abed el-Aziz Rantisi, and while telling supporters of his Fatah faction of the PLO to prepare for war.
Albright's signal is clear. Gone are the days of Secretary James Baker's
"constructive ambiguity" and search for the right "modalities". Gone are the days of Labour's secret, backwoods deals in far-off Nordic lands. Even the Clinton policy ("if Israel is ready to take risks for peace, the US will be there to help minimise those risks") is no longer a sufficient formula. The day has come for the final reckoning; for pressuring Israel on those serious, thorny issues--Jerusalem, refugees, Palestinian statehood--which were postponed while the parties were meant to build mutual confidence. So at a time when Israeli confidence in Arafat is in a freefall due to his dismal failure to comply with any material terms of the Oslo agreements, the gavel is passed to the new arbiter, Madeleine Albright, whose intent is to secure more agreements.
One Israeli friend recently said peace to him means "peace of mind"--meaning freedom from that worrisome feeling, that nagging preoccupation a terrorist bomber is stalking one. Arafat could do much to help alleviate those fears, but he stubbornly refuses.
The imminent peril is that Albright will ignore Arafat's behaviour and render a verdict that sufficient peace has come for every Israeli who boards a bus, shops at the vegetable market, or eats at the neighbourhood restaurant.
But hasn't her own State Department just warned Americans not to go into crowded areas, especially in Jerusalem? Does she expect Israelis to continue to expose themselves to risks that Americans like me are advised to avoid?